Batman: Haunted Knight

By Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1 401-28486-2 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Timeless Seasonal Wonderment… 9/10

The creative team of Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale have tackled many iconic characters in a number of landmark tales, but their reworkings of early Batman mythology – such as The Long Halloween – must certainly rank amongst their most memorable.

Set during the Batman: Year One scenario created by Frank Miller, and originally released as a 13-part miniseries (running from Halloween to Halloween), it detailed the early alliance of Police Captain Jim Gordon, District Attorney Harvey Dent and the mysterious vigilante Batman, to destroy the unassailable mob boss who ran Gotham City: Carmine Falcone – “The Roman”.

However, even before that epic undertaking, the creators worked together on another All Hallows adventure; one that grew like Topsy to eventually become a triptych of Prestige One-Shot Specials under the aegis of Archie Goodwin’s most significant editorial project…

After the continuity-wide reset of Crisis on Infinite Earths, and with DC still in the throes of re-jigging its entire narrative history, a new Batman title launched, presenting multi-part epics refining and infilling the history of the post-Crisis hero and his entourage.

The added fillip was a fluid cast of prominent and impressively up-and-coming creators…

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight was a fascinating experiment, even if ultimately the overall quality became a little haphazard and hit-or-miss.

Most of the early story-arcs were quickly collected as trade paperback editions – helping to jump-start the graphic novel sector of the comics industry – and the moody re-imaginings of the Gotham Guardian’s early career gave fans a wholly modern insight into the ancient yet highly malleable concept.

As explained in ‘Trick or Treat’ – Editors Goodwin’s reproduced introduction from the 1996 compilation – the first Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special began life as a story-arc for the monthly series before being cannily promoted to a single, stand-alone publication released for October 1993. Its success spawned the two sequels also included in this volume and the aforementioned Long Halloween epic…

Collected in one spooky stripped-down paperback and/or eBook compilation, those three scary stories comprise a raw and visceral examination of an obsessive hero still learning his trade and capable of deadly misjudgements as seen in initial yarn ‘Fears’.

Here, after spectacularly capturing terror-obsessed psychopath Jonathan Crane, the neophyte Caped Crusader leaves him to mere policemen ill-equipped to cope with the particular brand of malicious insanity cultivated by The Scarecrow

It’s fair to say that the man behind the bat mask is distracted; still attempting to reconcile his nocturnal and diurnal activities, young Bruce Wayne is currently floundering before the seductive and sophisticated blandishments of predatory social butterfly and matrimonial black widow Jillian Maxwell. Faithful major-domo Alfred Pennyworth is not so easily swayed, however…

Left too much to his own devices, Scarecrow has run wild through Gotham, but when he abducts Gordon, he at last makes a mistake the Dark Knight can capitalise upon…

One year later another Halloween brings ‘Madness’ as rebellious teen Barbara Gordon choses exactly the wrong moment to run away from home: a night when her dad’s mysterious caped pal is frantically hunting Jervis Tetch – a certified nutcase abducting runaways to attend decidedly deadly Tea Parties orchestrated by a truly Mad Hatter

Steeped in personal nostalgia as a maniac rampages through his city, inadvertently trampling upon some of Bruce Wayne’s only happy memories (of his mother’s favourite book), the heroic pursuer almost dies at the hands of the Looking Glass Loon, only to be saved by unlikely angel Leslie Thompkins – another woman who will loom large in the future life of the Batman…

The final fable here pastiches a Christmas classic by Charles Dickens as ‘Ghosts’ sees a delirious Bruce Wayne uncharacteristically taking to his bed early on the night before Halloween.

After socialising with young financier Lucius Fox, eating bad shrimp and crushing baroque bird bandit The Penguin, our sick and weary playboy lapses into troubled sleep, only to be visited by three spectres…

Looking like Poison Ivy, The Joker and the corpse of Batman himself, whilst representing Past, Present and inescapable Future, these phantoms prove that only doom awaits unless the overachieving hero strikes a balance – or perhaps truce – between his two divergent identities…

Trenchant with narrative foreboding – long-time fans already know the tragedies in store for all the participants, although total neophytes won’t be left wondering – these eerily enthralling Noir thrillers by Loeb perfectly capture the spirit of the modern Batman, supremely graced with startlingly powerful images of Mood, Mystery and rampant Mayhem from the magic pencil and brush of Tim Sale, vividly augmented by the colours of Gregory Wright and lettering of Todd Klein.

Adding lustre to these moody proceedings are a gallery of prior covers culled from earlier collections as well as a Sale Batman sketch, making this one of the very best Batman books you could read.
So, do…
© 1993, 1994, 1995, 2014, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Emperor Joker

By Jeph Loeb, J.M. DeMatteis, Mark Schultz, Joe Kelly, Ed McGuinness, Mike Miller, Doug Mahnke, Kano, Duncan Rouleau, Todd Nauck, Carlo Barberi, Scott McDaniel & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1193-6 (TPB)

In the arena of superhero stories, the terms of narrative are often determined more by the antagonists than the gaudily costumed champions doggedly duelling with them. That’s never been more apparent than in tales featuring the Clown Prince of Crime such as this one…

Originally available as a trade paperback and now in a selection of digital formats, this outlandish yarn collectively spans September and October 2000, as originally published in Superman #160-161, Adventures of Superman #582-583, Superman: The Man of Steel #104-105, Action Comics #769-770 and Emperor Joker #1.

First 4-part story arc Superman: Arkham begins in Superman #160 with ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World!’ by Jeph Loeb, Ed McGuinness & Cam Smith. The night is broken with hideous screams. Every night.

A black-clad maniac dubbed Superman smashes out of grim asylum Arkham, only to be subdued again and re-incarcerated by warped clone Bizarro before day breaks.

Every night a diminutive and greatly distracted pixie of a man dashes to an appointment only to be hit by a train, or a giant weight or something else gigantic, weighty and somehow non-fatal…

In a sky that rains custard pies hangs a moon with the Joker‘s face. What is going on and when will it all end?

The madness spreads to Adventures of Superman #582 and ‘Crazy About You’ (by J.M. DeMatteis, Mike Millar & José Marzan Jr.) where unlikely nun Supergirl is tormented by visions whilst evil billionaire genius Lois Lane sets her incomparable intellect to solving the mystery of the constant Arkham escapee.

A ghastly warped convocation of the JLA resumes their terrorising activities as Superman: The Man of Steel #104 ‘No Axioms’ (Mark Schultz, Doug Mahnke, Tom Nguyen & John McCrea) sees the perennial escapee meet up with inspirational inventor armourer John Henry Irons; a man afflicted with astounding ideas and concepts torturously leaking out of his brain. As he strives to create a suit of Steel to aid the prisoner, Bizarro and the powered-up posse attack…

And elsewhere the little man remembers who he is. Now there’s a ghost of a chance to save and correct Reality…

Forced to toil as ineffectual fast-food peon Super Burger Boy, rebel teen Conner Kent witnesses a war between wonder beings and his clouded thoughts stir in ’SupermanamrepuS’ (Joe Kelly, Kano & Marlo Alquiza from Action Comics #769). As Irons and the prisoner invade the JLA’s moon citadel, the kid’s powers revive too…

When 5th Dimensional trickster Mr. Mxyzptlk finally arrives to beg the Men of Steel’s assistance, they initially assume he’s the cause of the universe’s woes… until he makes them look at the Earth they’ve just come from…

Answers if not solutions are forthcoming in Emperor Joker #1. ‘It’s a Joker World, Baby, We Just Live in it!’ by Kelly, Loeb, Duncan Rouleau, Todd Nauck, Carlo Barberi, Scott McDaniel, Alquiza, Jaime Mendoza & Richard Bonk reveals how the beyond-deranged Harlequin of Hate appropriated the immeasurable power of Mxyzptlk, what he did with it and how his whimsical changes are threating all existence.

As the crisis encompasses a host of transformed and tormented guest stars, the disparate remnants of the former Superman Family launch a desperate last-ditch scheme to save everything, leading to closing story arc ‘The Reign of Emperor Joker’ and beginning with Superman #161.

Loeb, McGuinness & Smith’s ‘You Say You Want a Revolution?’ finds Superboy, Supergirl and the Action Ace picking off the Joker’s minions and invading his awesome Hahacienda, only to discover what the Joker has done to his greatest obsession The Batman

The infernal realms are assaulted and overturned in Adventures of Superman #583’s ‘Life is but a (Very Bad) Dream’ (DeMatteis, Millar & Armando Durruthy), resulting in a shocking resurrection and counterstrike before even more unlikely revivals converge on the mad clown in ‘All the World His Stage’ (by Schultz, Mahnke & Nguyen from Superman: The Man of Steel #105).

After an inconceivable final battle that rocks all reality, the universe is set aright in Action Comics #769-770’s ‘He Who Laughs Last’ by Kelly, Kano & Marlo Alquiza, but don’t think for a moment that all’s right with the world…

Although not a new plot, this tale of a time and place where compulsively interventionist god the Joker employs Fifth dimensional magic to literally remake creation in his own image just so he can torture the heroes who have so often thwarted him, actually works. Maintaining breakneck pace and peppering the action with in-jokes and sly asides, the narrative of Superman under terminal pressure to save the universe is truly gripping and the eventual denouement actually succeeds in both contextual terms and delivery of a powerful payoff. This is a marvellous piece of comic eye-candy.

Although taken from a particularly grim and humourless period in Superman history, this thinly disguised tribute to the zany genius of Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and those wacky Warner Brothers cartoons reads like a breath of fresh air when gathered together in one collection and comes with closing contrary codicil ‘The Codex Comicon’ from Joe Kelly under his nom de plume Professor B. Zarro.
Thrilling, fun and full of perfect comics moments, this is a book every Fights ‘n’ Tights fan should have.
© 2000, 2007, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JLA Deluxe volume 8

By Chris Claremont, Chuck Austen, Joe Kelly, John Byrne, Ron Garney, Doug , Jerry Ordway, Tom Nguyen & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6342-3 (TPB)

When the Justice League of America – driving force and cornerstone of the Silver Age of Comics – were relaunched in 1997, the sheer bravura quality of the stories propelled the series back to the forefront of industry attention, making as many new fans as it recaptured old ones. However, fans are fickle and the intoxicating sheen of “fresh and new” never lasts. By the time of these tales – spanning May to November 2004 from JLA #94-106 plus material from JLA Secret Files 2004 #1 – there had been numerous changes of creative personnel… usually a bad omen… and a certain straying from the clear missions of the earliest adventures…

As you’ve come to expect by now, this volume is available in all digital formats as well as traditional trade paperback…

After battling all manner of contemporary and futuristic foes, in ‘Suffer the Little Children’ the World’s Greatest Superheroes now find themselves pitted against an ancient malevolence from out of Earth’s oldest nightmares. Contrived by a trio of the industry’s biggest talents – Chris Claremont, John Byrne & Jerry Ordway – the expansive saga originally ran in issues #94-99 of the monthly title.

When team mystic Manitou Raven divines that a great evil has come hunting, he is suddenly silenced before he can warn his comrades. As Batman and Flash follow a rash of global child disappearances, Superman is astonishingly defeated by a pair of strange juvenile runaways.

Comparing notes with other JLA members the heroes discover a pattern of metagenic abductions: someone or something is taking super-powered children…

Meanwhile an enthralled Man of Steel has become the slave – and ambulatory lunchbox – of diabolical vampire lord Crucifer, whose race of undying leeches has been secretly working to conquer the world since their initial defeat and extra-dimensional banishment by the Amazon warriors of Themyscira thousands of years previously.

‘The Enemy Within’ sees team boffin The Atom lost in a microverse within a magic artefact and meeting a lost race with a hidden connection to the crisis, even as a mysterious third force of freaks maneuverers for advantage in the background. When Wonder Woman consults ancient scroll records she is betrayed and attacked by her closest ally and the crucial data is erased…

As the beleaguered and outclassed heroes strive to cope, ‘The Heart of the Matter’ sees Martian Manhunter use his unique gifts to trace the Atom, but even as master tactician Batman works to counter the infallible plans of their hidden enemy, his ace in the hole Faith falls to Crucifer’s power…

And in the background, that shady band of outcasts undertakes their own plan to save the day…

‘Interludes on the Last Day of the World!’ sees the vampire resurgence edge ever closer. With Crucifer’s abducted metahuman victims acting as shock troops and physical hosts for the bloodsucking arcane exiles, the embattled remnants of the JLA reconsolidate and ally themselves with the skulking outsiders watching them, just as the vampire lord opens a hole into hell and bids his kin to freely enter…

The fightback begins in ‘Convergence’ with the rescue of the Atom whose fresh data provides the answer to the mystery of Crucifer’s seeming invulnerability, leading to a mass assault and ultimate victory by the competing teams of heroes in ‘Heartbreaker!’

The former X-Men creative team supreme reunited for this supernatural romp, but their old magic was sorely lacking: Byrne co-writing with Claremont and pencilling for the criminally underappreciated Jerry Ordway to ink and embellish is a far better “look” than “read”.

Comic fans love these sorts of nostalgia stunts, but sadly, the results here don’t really live up to expectations, resulting in a competent but predictable heroes-versus-vampires yarn that suffers greatly because it’s painfully obvious that the whole thing is a high-profile, extended gimmick designed to kick-start Byrne’s then-forthcoming reinvention of the Doom Patrol, and not really a JLA story at all…

Most comic books – indeed all popular fiction – are a product of or reaction to the times in which they are created. In the grim, authoritarian, morally ambiguous climate of post 9-11 America writer Joe Kelly wrote an issue of Action Comics (#775) addressing the traditional ethics and practices of ultimate boy scout Superman in a world where old values were seen as a liability and using “The Enemy’s” own tactics against them was viewed with increasing favour by the public.

‘What’s So Funny about Truth, Justice and the American Way’ (not included here) introduced super-Esper Manchester Black and his team of Elite metahumans who responded proactively and with extreme overkill to global threats and menaces in such a drastic and final manner that Superman was forced to take a long, hard look at his core beliefs before triumphing over a team who saw absolutely no difference between villains, monsters or people who disagreed with them…

In a distressing sign of those times, The Elite proved so overwhelmingly popular that they returned in JLA #100. ‘Elitism’ – by Kelly, Doug Mahnke & Tom Nguyen – depicts how the team, led now by Black’s cyborg sister Vera, at first oppose and eventually cooperate with the traditionally-minded JLA to save Earth from a catastrophic ecological and metaphysical meltdown – but all is not as it seems…

Vera Black correctly assesses the fundamental flaws in her methodology but also similar weaknesses in the JLA’s. She proposes becoming the League’s “Black Ops” division, gathering intel, working undercover and decisively dealing with potential threats before they become global crises. Her team will get their hands dirty in a way the JLA simply cannot afford to…

Over Superman’s protests, but with stringent oversight in place and using a combination of Elite and League volunteers, the plan is adopted and Justice League Elite subsequently won their own 12-issue series with Major Disaster, Green Arrow, Manitou Raven, and Flash joining Vera, energy manipulator Coldcast, human bio-weapon arsenal Menagerie and Naif al-Sheikh (a human spymaster who acts as): Director, Adjudicator and Conscience for a unit designed to neutralise organizations and nations that threaten World Security before things ever reach a boiling point.

JLA Secret Files 2004 develops the controversial theme in ‘Same Coin’, by Kelly, Byrne, Mahnke & Nguyen, wherein the two teams work separately – and mostly at odds – to stop a Hitlerian Ragnarok from occurring thanks to illicit use of mystic doomsday weapon the Spear of Destiny…

Getting over a post-celebration hump is always tricky for a long-running comic series. An anniversary or centenary is usually celebrated by some large-scale cosmos-shaking exploit which it’s impossible to top, leading to an anti-climactic “day in the life” venture. In the case of story arc Pain of the Gods – reprinting JLA #101-106 – Chuck Austen & Ron Garney take that hoary tradition, and indeed the equally tired plot of heroes’ soul-searching angst after a failure to succeed, and run with it to produce a stirring, potent exploration of humanity too often absent in modern adventure fiction.

Each chapter deals with an emotional crisis affecting an individual Leaguer who fails to save a life, beginning with Superman in ‘Man of Steel’ as the perfect hero misjudges the abilities of a new costumed champion and witnesses the wannabe hero perish in explosive conflagration…

‘Scarlet Speedster’ treads similar ground as Flash misses two children whilst evacuating a burning building and Green Lantern misjudges the homicidal determination of a domestic abuser in ‘Emerald Gladiator’. Throughout each of these tragedies a single family reappears; fuelling the emotional turmoil pushing each hero into obsession and psychosis.

In ‘Manhunter from Mars’ team telepath and philosophical lynchpin J’onn J’onzz is forced to confront the life-long emotional barriers distancing him from his companions and resulting from surviving the death of his entire species, whilst Wonder Woman faces her own mortality whilst battling a super-killer in ‘Amazonian Warrior’ before Batman ultimately must acknowledge that he can’t know and do everything alone in ‘The Dark Knight’

The entire story can be viewed as a treatise on fallibility and post-traumatic distress with superheroes acting as metaphors for Police and Firemen, and the cleverly-inserted sub-plot of a seemingly mundane family seeking redress plays well against the tragic grandeur of the stars. It’s grand to see a superhero tale that thinks with a heart rather than acts with gaudily gloved fists for a change…

The JLA – in all its incarnations – has endured a long history of starting strong but losing focus, and particularly of coasting by on past glories for extended periods. Luckily the team still had a few more tricks left during this period and a little life in it before the inevitable demise and reboot for the next generation after Final Crisis: offering plenty of fun and thrills for casual readers and full-on fans alike.
© 2004, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents the Spectre volume 1

By Gardner F. Fox, Bob Haney, Mike Friedrich, Steve Skeates, Dennis J. O’Neil, Mark Hanerfeld, Michael L. Fleisher, Len Wein, Paul Kupperberg, Mike W. Barr, Murphy Anderson, Carmine Infantino, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Neal Adams, Jerry Grandenetti, Jack Sparling, Bernie Wrightson, Jim Aparo, Frank Thorne, Ernie Chan, Jim Starlin, Michael R. Adams & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3417-1 (TPB)

Created by Jerry Siegel & Bernard Baily in 1940 and debuting via a 2-part origin epic in More Fun Comics #52 and 53, The Spectre is one of the oldest characters in DC’s vast character stable. Crucially, just like Siegel’s other iconic creation, he soon began to suffer from a basic design flaw: he was just too darn powerful.

Unlike Superman however, this relentless champion of justice was already dead, so he can’t really be logically or dramatically imperilled. Of course, in those far off early days that wasn’t nearly as important as sheer spectacle: forcibly grabbing the reader’s utter attention and keeping it stoked to a fantastic fever pitch.

Starting as a virtually omnipotent phantom, the Grim Ghost evolved, over various revivals, refits and reboots into a tormented mortal soul bonded inescapably to the actual embodiment of the biblical Wrath of God.

The story is a genuinely gruesome one: police detective Jim Corrigan is callously executed by gangsters before being called back to the land of the living. Commanded to fight crime and evil by a glowing light and disembodied voice, he was indisputably the most formidable hero of the Golden Age.

He has been revamped many times, and in the 1990s was revealed to be God’s own Spirit of Vengeance wedded to a human conscience. When Corrigan was finally laid to rest, Hal (Green Lantern) Jordan and murdered Gotham City cop Crispus Allen replaced him as the mitigating conscience of the unstoppable, easily irked force of Divine Retribution…

However, the true start of that radically revitalised career began in the superhero-saturated mid-1960s when, hot on the heels of feverish fan-interest in the alternate world of the Justice Society of America and Earth-2 (where all the WWII heroes retroactively resided), DC began trying out solo revivals of 1940’s characters, as a counterpoint to such wildly successful Silver Age reconfigurations as Flash, Green Lantern, Atom and Hawkman

This sublime and colossal Showcase selection collects and documents the almighty Man of Darkness’ return in the Swinging Sixties, his landmark reinterpretation in the horror-soaked, brutalised 1970s and even finds room for some later appearances before the character was fully de-powered and retrofitted for the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Universe.

As such, this mammoth monochrome tome (624 peril-packed pages!) contains Showcase #60, 61 and 64; The Spectre #1-10; team-up tales from The Brave and the Bold #72, 75, 116, 180 & 199 and DC Comics Presents #29; the lead strips from Adventure Comics #431-440 and one last hurrah from horror-anthology Ghosts #97-99, cumulatively encompassing the end of 1965 to the middle of 1983.

DC had tried a number of Earth-2 team-iterations (Starman/Black Canary – with Wildcat – in The Brave and the Bold #61-62, whilst Showcase #55 & 56 spotlighted Doctor Fate & Hourman with a cameo from the original Green Lantern), but inspirational editor Julie Schwartz and scripter Gardner F. Fox only finally achieved their ambition to launch a Golden Age hero into his own title with the revival of the Ghostly Guardian in Showcase. It was hard going and perhaps ultimately benefited from a growing general public interest in supernatural stories…

After three full length appearances and many guest-shots, The Spectre won his own solo series at the end of 1967, just as the super-hero craze went into a steep decline, but arguably Showcase #60 (January/February 1966) anticipated the rise of supernatural comics by re-introducing Corrigan and his phantom passenger in ‘War That Shook the Universe’ by Earth-2 team supreme Fox & illustrator Murphy Anderson.

This spectacular saga reveals why the Heroic Haunt had vanished two decades previously, leaving the fundamentally human Corrigan to pursue his war against evil on merely mortal terms – until a chance encounter with a psychic investigator frees the spirit buried deep within him.

A diligent search reveals that, 20 years previously, a supernal astral invader broke into the Earth plane and possessed a mortal, but was so inimical to our laws of reality that both it and the Grim Ghost were locked into their meat shells – until now…

Thus began a truly spectre-acular (feel free to groan, but that’s what they called it back then) clash with the devilish Azmodus that spans all creation and blew the minds of us gobsmacked kids…

Issue #61 (March/April) upped the ante when the even-more satanic Shathan the Eternal subsequently insinuates himself into our realm from ‘Beyond the Sinister Barrier’, stealing mortal men’s shadows until he is powerful enough to conquer the physical universe. This time The Spectre treats us to an exploration of the universe’s creation before narrowly defeating the source of all evil…

The Sentinel Spirit re-manifested in Showcase #64 (September/October 1966) for a marginally more mundane but no less thrilling adventure when ‘The Ghost of Ace Chance’ takes up residence in Jim’s body. By this time, it was established that ghosts need a mortal anchor to recharge their ectoplasmic “batteries”, and this unscrupulous crooked gambler is determined to inhabit the best frame available…

The try-out run concluded, the editors sat back and waited for sales figures to dictate the next move. When they proved inconclusive Schwartz orchestrated a concerted publicity campaign to further promote Earth-2’s Ethereal Adventurer.

The Brave and the Bold #72 (June/July 1967) saw the Spectre clash with Earth-1’s Scarlet Speedster in ‘Phantom Flash, Cosmic Traitor’ (by Bob Haney, Carmine Infantino & Charles “Chuck” Cuidera). This sinister saga sees the mortal meteor arcanely transformed into a sinister spirit-force and power-focus for unquiet American aviator Luther Jarvis who returns from his death in 1918 to wreak vengeance on the survivors of his squadron – until the Spectre intervenes…

Due to the vagaries of comicbook scheduling, Brave and the Bold #75 (December 1967/January 1968) appeared at around the same time as The Spectre #1, although the latter had a cover-date of November/December 1967. In the Batman team-up tale – scripted by Haney and drawn by Ross Andru & Mike Esposito – Ghostly Guardian joins Dark Knight to free Gotham City’s Chinatown from ‘The Grasp of Shahn-Zi!’: an ancient oriental sorcerer determined to prolong his reign of terror at the expense of an entire community and through the sacrifice of an innocent child, after which the Astral Avenger finally, simultaneously, debuted in his own title…

The Spectre #1 featured ‘The Sinister Lives of Captain Skull’ by Fox & Anderson, divulging how the botched assassination of American Ambassador Joseph Clanton and an experimental surgical procedure allows one of the diplomat’s earlier incarnations to seize control of his body and, armed with mysterious eldritch energies, run amok on Earth.

These “megacyclic energy” abilities enable the revenant to harm and potentially destroy the Ghostly Guardian and compel the Spectre to pursue the piratical Skull through a line of previous lives until he can find their source and purge the peril from all time and space…

With issue #2 (January/February 1968) artistic iconoclast Neal Adams came aboard for the Fox-scripted mystery ‘Die Spectre – Again’ wherein crooked magician Dirk Rawley accidentally manifests his etheric self and severely tests both Corrigan and his phantom lodger as they seek to end the double-menace’s string of crimes, mundane and magical. At this time, the first inklings of a distinct separation and individual identities began. The two halves of the formerly sole soul of Corrigan were beginning to disagree and even squabble…

Neophyte scripter Mike Friedrich joined Adams for #3’s ‘Menace of the Mystic Mastermind’ wherein pugilistic paragon Wildcat faces the inevitable prospect of age and infirmity even as an inconceivable force from another universe possesses petty thug Sad Jack Dold, turning him into a nigh-unstoppable force of cosmic chaos…

‘Stop that Kid… Before He Wrecks the World’ was written & illustrated by Adams with a similar trans-universal malignity deliberately empowering a young boy as a prelude to its ultimate conquest, whilst #5’s ‘The Spectre Means Death?’ (all Adams again) appears to show the Ghostly Guardian transformed into a pariah and deadly menace to society, until Jim’s investigations uncover the emotion-controlling Psycho Pirate at the root of the Heroic Haunt’s problems…

Despite all the incredible talent and effort lavished upon it, The Spectre simply wasn’t finding a big enough audience. Adams left for straight superhero glory elsewhere and a hint of changing tastes came as veteran illustrator of horror comics Jerry Grandenetti came aboard.

Issue #6 (September/October 1968) saw his eccentric, manic cartooning adding raw wildness to the returning Fox’s moody thriller ‘Pilgrims of Peril!’ Murphy Anderson also re-enlisted, applying a solid ink grounding to the story of a sinister quartet of phantom Puritans who invade the slums of Gateway City, driving out the poor and hopeless as they hunt long-lost arcane treasures. These would allow demon lord Nawor of Giempo access to Earth unless The Spectre can win his unlife or death duel with the trans-dimensional horror…

As the back of issue #7 was dedicated to a solo strip starring Hourman (not included in this collection), The Spectre saga here – by Fox, Grandenetti & Anderson – was a half-length tale which followed the drastic steps necessary to convince the soul of bank-robber Frankie Barron to move on. Since he was killed during a heist, the astral form of aversion therapy used to cure ‘The Ghost That Haunted Money!’ proves not only ectoplasmically effective but outrageously entertaining…

Issue #8 (January/February 1969) was scripted by Steve Skeates and began a last-ditch and obviously desperate attempt to turn The Spectre into something the new wave of anthology horror readers would buy.

As a twisted, time-lost apprentice wizard struggles to return to Earth after murdering his master and stealing cosmic might from the void, on our mundane plane an exhausted Ghostly Guardian neglects his duties and is taken to task by his celestial creator.

As a reminder of his error, the Penitent Phantasm is burdened by a fluctuating weakness – which would change without warning – to keep him honest and earnest. What a moment for the desperate disciple Narkran to return then; determined to secure his elevated god-like existence by securing ‘The Parchment of Power Perilous!’

The Spectre #9 completed the transition, opening with an untitled short from Friedrich (illustrated by Grandenetti & Bill Draut) which sees the Man of Darkness again overstep his bounds by executing a criminal. This prompts Corrigan to refuse the weary wraith the shelter of his reinvigorating form and when the Grim Ghost then assaults his own host form, the Heavenly Voice punishes the spirit by chaining him to the dreadful Journal of Judgment: demanding he atone by investigating the lives inscribed therein in a trial designed to teach him again the value of mercy…

The now anthologised issue continued with ‘Abraca-Doom’ (Dennis J. O’Neil & Bernie Wrightson) as The Spectre attempts to stop a greedy carnival conjurer signing a contract with the Devil, whilst ‘Shadow Show’ – by Mark Hanerfeld & Jack Sparling – details the fate of a cheap mugger who thinks he can outrun the consequences of a capital crime…

The next issue gave up the ghost. The Spectre folded with #10 (May/June 1969), but not before a quartet of tantalising tales by – writer or writers unknown – shows what might have been…

‘Footsteps of Disaster’ with art from Grandenetti & George Roussos, follows a man from cradle to early grave, revealing the true wages of sin, whilst ‘Hit and Run’ (probably drawn by Ralph Reese) proves again that the Spirit of Judgment is not infallible and even human scum might be redeemed…

‘How Much Can a Guy Take?’ (Sparling) offers salvation to a shoeshine boy pushed almost too far by an arrogant mobster before the series closed with a cunning murder mystery involving what appeared to be a killer ventriloquist’s doll in the Grandenetti & Roussos limned ‘Will the Real Killer Please Rise?’

With that the Astral Avenger returned to comicbook limbo for nearly half a decade until changing tastes and another liberalising of the Comics Code saw him arise as lead feature in Adventure Comics #431 (January/February 1974) for a shocking run of macabre, ultra-violent tales from Michael L. Fleisher & Jim Aparo.

‘The Wrath of… The Spectre’ offered a far more stark, unforgiving take on the Sentinel Spirit; reflecting the increasingly violent tone of the times. Here, a gang of murderous thieves slaughter the crew of a security truck and are tracked down by a harsh, uncompromising police lieutenant named Corrigan. When the bandits are exposed, the cop unleashes a horrific green and white apparition from his body which inflicts ghastly punishments that horrendously fit their crimes…

With art continuity (and no, I’m not sure what that means either) from Russell Carley, the draconian fables continue in #432 as in ‘The Anguish of… The Spectre’ assassins murder millionaire Adrian Sterling and Corrigan meets the victim’s daughter Gwen. Although the now-infallible Wrathful Wraith soon exposes and excised the culprits, the dead detective has to reveal his true nature to the grieving daughter. Moreover, Corrigan begins to feel the stirring of impossible, unattainable yearnings…

Adventure #433 exposed ‘The Swami and… The Spectre’ as Gwen seeks spiritual guidance from a ruthless charlatan who promptly pays an appalling price when he finally encounters an actual ghost, whilst in #434 ‘The Nightmare Dummies and… The Spectre’ (with additional pencils by the great Frank Thorne), a plague of department store mannequins run wild in a killing spree at the behest of a crazed artisan who believes in magic – but can’t imagine the cost of his dabbling…

Issue #435 introduces journalist Earl Crawford who tracks the ghastly fallout of the vengeful spirit’s anti-crime campaign as ‘The Man Who Stalked The Spectre!’ Of course, once he sees the ghost in grisly action, Crawford realises the impossibility of publishing this scoop…

Adventure #436 finds Crawford still trying to sell his story as ‘The Gasmen and… The Spectre’ sets the Spectral Slaughterman on the trail of a gang who kill everyone at a car show as a simple demonstration of intent before blackmailing the city. Their gorily inescapable fate only puts Crawford closer to exposing Corrigan, after which, in #437’s ‘The Human Bombs and… The Spectre’ (with pencils from Ernie Chan & Aparo inks) a kidnapper abducts prominent persons – including Gwen – to further a merciless mad scheme of amassing untold wealth… until the Astral Avenger ended the depredations forever…

In #438, ‘The Spectre Haunts the Museum of Fear’ (Chan & Aparo again) sees a crazed taxidermist turning people into unique dioramas until the Grim Ghost intervenes, but the end was in sight again for the Savage Shade. Issue #439’s ‘The Voice that Doomed… The Spectre’ (all Aparo) turns the wheel of death full circle, as the Heavenly Presence who created him allows Corrigan to fully live again so that he can marry Gwen. Sadly, it is only to have the joyous hero succumb to ‘The Second Death of The… Spectre’ (#440, July/August 1975) and tragically resume his never-ending mission…

This milestone serial set a stunning new tone and style for the Ghostly Guardian which has informed each iteration ever since…

From midway through that run, Brave and the Bold #116 provides another continuity-coshing supernatural team-up with Batman – a far less graphically violent struggle against the ‘Grasp of the Killer Cult’ (Haney & Aparo). When Kali-worshipping Thugs from India seemingly target survivors of a WWII American Army Engineer unit, Detective Corrigan and the Dark Knight clash on both the method and motives of the mysterious murderers…

DC Comics Presents #29 (January 1981, by Len Wein, Jim Starlin & Romeo Tanghal) revealed what happened after Supergirl is knocked unconscious during a cataclysmic battle and sent hurtling through dimensions measureless to man. When her cousin tries to follow, the Ghostly Guardian is dispatched to stop the Metropolis Marvel from transgressing ‘Where No Superman Has Gone Before’

By the early 1980s, the horror boom had again exhausted itself and DC’s anthology comics were disappearing. As part of the effort to keep them alive, Ghosts featured a 3-part serial starring “Ghost-Breaker” and inveterate sceptic Dr. Terry 13 who at last encounters ‘The Spectre’ in issue #97 (February 1981, by Paul Kupperberg, Michael R. Adams & Tex Blaisdell), wherein terrorists invade a high society séance and are summarily dispatched by the inhuman poetic justice of the freshly-manifested Astral Avenger…

Now determined to destroy the monstrous revenant vigilante, Dr. 13 returns in #98 as ‘The Haunted House and The Spectre’ finds the Ghost-Breaker interviewing Earl Crawford and subsequently discovering the long-sought killer of his own father. Before 13 can act however, the Spectre appears and steals his justifiable retribution from the aggrieved psychic investigator…

The drama closed in Ghosts #99 as ‘Death… and The Spectre’ (inked by Tony DeZuñiga) sees scientist and spirit locked in one final furious confrontation.

This staggering compendium of supernatural thrillers concludes with two more team-up classics from Brave and the Bold, beginning with ‘The Scepter of the Dragon God’ by Fleisher & Aparo (from #180, November 1980). Although Chinese wizard Wa’an-Zen steals enough mystic artefacts to conquer Earth and destroy The Spectre, he gravely underestimates the skill and bravery of merely mortal Batman, whilst in #199 (June 1983) ‘The Body-napping of Jim Corrigan’ (Mike W. Barr, Andru & Rick Hoberg), finds the ethereal avenger baffled by the abduction and disappearance of his mortal host. Even though he cannot trace his own body, the Spectre knows where the World’s Greatest Detective hangs out…

Ranging from fabulously fantastical to darkly, violently enthralling, these comic masterpieces perfectly encapsulate the way superheroes changed over a brief 20-year span, but remain throughout some of the most beguiling and exciting tales of DC’s near-80 years of existence. If you love comicbooks you’d be crazy to ignore this one…
© 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1974, 1975, 1981, 1983, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Shazam! The World’s Mightiest Mortal volume 1

By Denny O’Neil, Elliot S. Maggin, E. Nelson Bridwell, C.C. Beck, Kurt Schaffenberger, Dave Cockrum, Bob Oksner, Dick Giordano & various (DC)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-8839-6 (HB)

One of the most venerated and loved characters in American comics was created by Bill Parker and Charles Clarence Beck as part of the wave of opportunistic creativity that followed the successful launch of Superman in 1938. Although there were many similarities in the early years, the Fawcett character moved swiftly and solidly into the area of light entertainment and even broad comedy, whilst as the 1940s progressed the Man of Steel increasingly left whimsy behind in favour of action and drama.

Homeless orphan and good kid Billy Batson is selected by an ancient wizard to battle injustice and subsequently granted the powers of six gods and mythical heroes. By speaking aloud the wizard’s name – itself an acronym for the six patrons Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury – he can transform from scrawny boy to brawny (adult) hero Captain Marvel.

At the height of his popularity Captain Marvel hugely outsold Superman and was even published twice a month, but as the decade progressed and tastes changed sales slowed, and an infamous court case begun in 1941 by National Comics citing copyright infringement was settled. Like many other superheroes the “Big Red Cheese” disappeared, becoming a fond memory for older fans. A big syndication success, he was missed all over the world…

In Britain, where an English reprint line had run for many years, creator/publisher Mick Anglo had an avid audience and no product, and transformed Captain Marvel into atomic age hero Marvelman, continuing to thrill readers into the early 1960s.

As America lived through another superhero boom-and-bust, the 1970s dawned with a shrinking industry and wide variety of comics genres servicing a base that was increasingly founded on collectors and fans rather than casual or impulse buyers. National – now DC – Comics needed sales and were prepared to look for them in unusual places.

After the court settlement with Fawcett in 1953 they had secured the rights to Captain Marvel and his spin-off Family. Now and though the name itself had been taken up by Marvel Comics (via a circuitous and quirky robotic character published by Carl Burgos and M.F. Publications in 1967), the publishing monolith decided to tap into that discriminating if aging fanbase.

In 1973, riding a wave of national nostalgia on TV and in the movies, DC brought back the entire beloved cast of the Captain Marvel crew in their own kinder, weirder universe. To circumvent the intellectual property clash, they named the new title Shazam! (‘With One Magic Word…’): the memorable trigger phrase used by myriad Marvels to transform to and from mortal form and a word that had already entered the American language due to the success of the franchise the first time around.

Now the latest star of film and TV is back in print in this stylish Hardback and digital compendium, collecting the first 18 issues (spanning February 1973 – May/June1975) of a glorious revival. It’s by rapturous and informative introduction With One Magic Word… by Jerry Ordway, writer and artist of latter day reinvention The Power of Shazam!

Back in 1972, the company tapped editor Julie Schwartz – instigator of the Silver Age of Comics and the go-to guy for hero revivals – to steer the project. He teamed top scripter Denny O’Neil with original artist C.C. Beck for the initial re-introductory story. ‘…In the Beginning…’

Delivered in grand old self-referential style, the engaging yarn reprised the classic origin after which ‘The World’s Wickedest Plan’ relates how the entire cast were trapped in a timeless “Suspendium” trap for twenty years after their arch-foes the Sivana family (Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana and his vile but equally brilliant children Georgia and Thaddeus Jr.) attacked them all at a public awards ceremony.

Two decades later, they were all freed, baddies included, to restart their lives. That first issue also included a text-feature/score-card by devotee E. Nelson Bridwell to bring new and old readers up to speed, and ‘Shazam & Son: The Story of the World’s Mightiest Mortal’ is included here to again bring new readers up to super speed.

With issue #2, a format of two stories per issue was instigated. ‘The Astonishing Arch Enemy’ heralds the return of super-intelligent Venusian worm Mr. Mind and a running gag about how strange people in the 1970s are. Written by Elliot Maggin, the second tale introduces eerily irresistible, scrupulously honest Sunny Sparkle who lives awash in the generosity of others who can’t resist giving stuff to ‘The Nicest Guy in the World’. Once again, the fun is counterpointed by a Bridwell text feature listing the many heroes sharing the powers of the gods in ‘Shazam and Family’.

For #3, O’Neil wrote ‘A Switch in Time’ wherein scrofulous underage magician Shagg Nasté disrupts the puny-boy-to-super-adult gimmick for young Billy, whilst Maggin & Beck craft a wry spy tale of daffy inventors in ‘The Wizard of Phonograph Hill’. Next issue evil Captain Marvel analogue ‘Ibac the Cursed’ disastrously re-emerged, courtesy of O’Neil & Beck, with Maggin again opting for a human-interest yarn in ‘The Mirrors that Predicted the Future’.

In the ‘70s economics dictated costs in comics be cut whenever possible so there was really no choice about filling pages with reprints, which had been an addition from the start. A huge benefit, however, was that those stories were unknown to the general readership and of a very high standard. Although not included in this volume, I mention them simply because they kept the page-count of most issues to around fifteen pages of new material per month (Shazam! was actually published eight times a year so the savings were even greater). Hopefully DC will get around to reprinting the Fawcett stories too – perhaps in the same format as their excellent Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman Golden Age collections…

Maggin took the lead slot with #5’s ‘The Man who Wasn’t’ (a potentially offensive tale of leprechauns with a rather heavy-handed racial stereotype as the magical foe) as well as a back-up which sees the return of Sunny Sparkle. Here, his obnoxious cousin Rowdy briefly becomes ‘The World’s Toughest Guy!’

O’Neil returned in #6, as did Sivana in time bending tale ‘Better Late than Never!’ whilst Maggin reintroduced a 1940’s boy-genius in the charming ‘Dexter Knox and his Electric Grandmother’. The following issue, loquacious science experiment Tawky Tawny took centre-stage in O’Neil’s ‘The Troubles of the Talking Tiger’ before uber-fan and wonderful guy E. Nelson Bridwell finally got to write a script with the delightfully zany and clever ‘What’s in a Name? Doomsday!

Shazam! #8 was the first of many 100-Page Spectaculars stuffed with great Golden Age reprints, but as such it’s only represented here by the C.C. Beck cover, whilst normal-sized #9 provides us with O’Neil’s ‘Worms of the World Unite’ – another clash with scurrilous dictator Mr. Mind – and the first solo adventure of Captain Marvel Jr. in over twenty years.

‘The Mystery of the Missing Newsstand! is an action-heavy romp and fine tribute to the works of early Fawcett mainstay (and Flash Gordon maestro Mac Raboy); written by Maggin and illustrated by young Dave Cockrum. It is truly lovely to look upon. A third original story completes the issue and Maggin & Beck clearly had heaps of fun on ‘The Day Captain Marvel Went Ape!’ when a mystic jewel deflects Shazam’s magic lightning into a chimpanzee.

Beck, notoriously opinionated, had been unhappy with the stories he was being asked to draw and left the series with #10. He was a supremely understated draughtsman with a canny eye for caricature and gag-timing, and his departure took away some of that indefinable charm. Many other gifted artists continued the strip but a certain kind of magic left the strip with him. He wasn’t even the lead or cover artist on the issue.

Bob Oksner & Vince Colletta illustrated Maggin’s mediocre flying saucer yarn ‘Invasion of the Salad Men’, but happily, Mary Marvel’s solo debut ‘The Thanksgiving Thieves’ is a much better effort with Bridwell’s script handled by Oksner alone (if ever an artist should ink himself it was this superb stylist). Beck bowed out with Bridwell’s ‘The Prize Catch of the Year’ which featured the reappearance of formidable octogenarian villainess Aunt Minerva – one of the most innovative rogues of the Golden Age and here again on the prowl for a new husband…

Issue #11 kicks off with ‘The World’s Mightiest Dessert!’ (Bridwell, Oksner & Colletta) wherein a new sweet treat goes berserk, but the real gem of this comic is ‘The Incredible Cape-Man’. Written by Maggin it saw the long-awaited return of Kurt Schaffenberger, a brilliant and highly accomplished artist who, by his own admission, considered drawing Captain Marvel the best of all possible jobs.

He began his career at Fawcett before moving to DC, ACG and others when the company folded. When the Big Red Cheese returned, his resumption of the art-chores was inevitable. In this tale of a mail man who becomes a Mystery Man, the art positively glows with joyous enthusiasm. This end-of-year issue then concludes with a good old-fashioned Yule yarn featuring the entire extended cast in Maggin & Schaffenberger’s ‘The Year Without a Christmas!’, with our heroes again clashing with the wicked Sivana clan to save the season.

The 12th issue was another 100-Page Spectacular but included 3 all-new stories: modern-day Midas menace ‘The Golden Plague’ (Bridwell & Oksner); another glorious Captain Marvel Jr. adventure ‘The Longest Block in the World!’ (Maggin & Dick Giordano), and cheerfully daft Kung Fu spoof ‘Mighty Master of the Martial Arts!’ by Maggin, Oksner & Colletta. Also included are clip-art features detailing the boy hero’s heroic heritage in ‘Billy Batson’s Family Album’ and his divine sponsors in ‘The Shazam Gods and Heroes’.

The next six issues retained this same format, combining around 20 pages of new material with a superb selection of Fawcett reprints, but once the character was picked up for a children’s TV show, the comic was again slimmed down to a cheaper standard format and increased publication frequency.

Maggin and Oksner led in #13 as ‘The Case of the Charming Crook!’ revealing how a felon manages to synthesise “essence of Sunny Sparkle” to make his crimes easier. This is followed by clip-art historical features ‘The Seven Deadly Enemies of Man!’, ‘Friends of the Shazam Family!’ and ‘Mary Marvel’s Fashion Parade!’ before Oksner returns to familiar ground as an illustrator of beautiful women in Bridwell’s Mary Marvel solo strip ‘The Haunted Clubhouse!’

The entire Marvel Family was needed in the next issue when O’Neil & Schaffenberger crafted ‘The Evil Return of the Monster Society’: a splendid action thriller serving to remind us that the Original Captain Marvel Shazam was never just about charm and comedy…

You know what fans are like: they had been arguing for decades – and still do – over who is best (for which read “who would win if they fought?”) out of Superman or Captain Marvel, so it’s amazing that a face off meeting took as long as it did to materialise.

However, despite the cover, the lead strip in #15 wasn’t it. Instead fans had to be content with a notoriously familiar guest villain when Mr. Mind and ‘Captain Marvel Meets… Lex Luthor!?!’: the work of O’Neil, Oksner and veteran inker (Phillip) Tex Blaisdell, who had worked un-credited on many DC strips over the decades, as well as drawing Little Orphan Annie, On Stage and many others.

Bridwell & Schaffenberger closed the issue with an excellent crime-caper in ‘The Man in the Paper Armor!’, preceded by clip features ‘Shazam’s Scientists and Inventors’ and ‘A Tour of American Cities with Captain Marvel!’

Schaffenberger kicked off #16 with Maggin’s ‘The Man who Stole Justice’; a taut thriller involving the incarnation of the one of the iconic Seven Deadly Enemies of Man (Sins to you and me) and a key part of the legend since the strip’s inception. Bridwell & Oksner utilised another Deadly Enemy in Mary Marvel solo story ‘The Green-Eyed Monster!’, but aliens and a Hippie musician were the antagonists in the feature-length tale leading off #17, the last 100-page issue. ‘The Pied Un-Piper’ is a tongue-in-cheek thriller from O’Neil & Schaffenberger, whereas a slightly more modern tone tinged the whimsy in #18’s ‘The Celebrated Talking Frog of Blackstone Forest!’ (Maggin & Oksner) and Bridwell & Schaffenberger’s CM Jr. clash with Sivana Jr. in ‘The Coin-Operated Caper’, albeit not enough to deaden the charm…

DC pulled out all the stops with their new baby. Production ace Jack Adler teamed with illustrators such as Nick Cardy, Murphy Anderson, Beck and Oksner to create a string of amazing photo/drawn art covers. The experiments ended with 7, but even so, it gave the title a unique presence on newsstands of the time and you can also enjoy them here.

Although controversial amongst older fans, the 1970’s incarnation of Captain Marvel has a tremendous amount going for it. Gloriously free of angst and agony, beautifully, simply illustrated, and wittily scripted, these are clever, funny, wholesome adventures that would appeal to any child and positively promote a love of graphic narrative. There’s a horrible dearth of exuberant fun superhero adventure these days so isn’t it great that there’s somewhere to go for a little light action again?
© 1973, 1974, 1975, 2019 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Challengers of the Unknown volume 2

By Arnold Drake, Ed Herron, Bob Brown & various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-4012-1725-9 (TPB)

The Challengers of the Unknown was a bridging concept. As superheroes were being revived in 1956 here was a super-team – the first of the Silver Age – with no powers, the most basic and utilitarian of costumes and the most dubious of motives… Suicide by Mystery.

Yet they were a huge hit and struck a chord that lasted for more than a decade before they finally died… only to rise again and yet again. The idea of them was stirring enough, but their initial execution made their success all but inevitable. Springing from tireless and inspirational human hit-factory Jack Kirby – before his move across town to co-create the Marvel Universe – the solid adventure concept and perfect action heroes he left behind were ideal everyman characters for the tumultuous 1960s – an era before super-heroes obtained a virtual chokehold on the comic-book pages.

Kirby had developed a brilliantly feasible concept and heroically archetypical characters in cool pilot Ace Morgan, indomitable strongman Rocky Davis, intellectual aquanaut “Prof.” Haley and daredevil acrobat Red Ryan. The Challengers of the Unknown were four (extra)ordinary mortals; heroic adventurers and explorers who walked away unscathed from a terrible plane crash. Already obviously what we now call “adrenaline junkies”, they decided that since they were all living on borrowed time, they would dedicate what remained of their lives to testing themselves and fate. They would risk their lives for Knowledge and naturally, Justice. They were joined by an occasional fifth member, beautiful (of course) scientist June Robbins in their second appearance (‘Ultivac is Loose!’ in Showcase #7, March/April 1957), and she became a hardy perennial, always popping up to solve puzzles, catch criminals and generally deal with Aliens, Monsters and assorted supernatural threats.

A number of writers, many sadly lost to posterity, wrote these tales, including Bill Finger, Ed Herron, Jack Miller, Bob Haney and Arnold Drake, but one man handled the artwork: Bob Brown.

Brown was born August 22nd 1915 and he died in 1977 following a long illness. He studied at Hartford Art School and Rhode Island School of Design, and worked with his showbiz folks and sister in a song-&-dance act from 1927 onwards. He was drafted in 1940 – the year he also began working as a comics artist and scripter for Fox, timely/Atlas. As the war intensified, he was an aircraft radio operator, an aviation cadet and served in the Pacific as bombardier and navigator in B-29 bombers, earning six air medals and a Distinguished Flying Cross.

After jobbing around the industry during the late 1040s and 1950’s Brown settled at National Comics/DC, co-created the long-running Space Ranger, drawing Tomahawk, western hero Vigilante, Batman, Superboy, Doom Patrol, World’s Finest Comics and a host of other features and genre shorts. He moved to Marvel in the 1970s where he drew Warlock, Daredevil and the Avengers among others.

He was a consummate professional and drew every issue of the Challengers from #9 – 63: almost a decade of high-adventure ranged from ravaging aliens, cute-and-fuzzy space beasts to truly scary supernatural horrors.

The Challengers followed Kirby’s model until cancellation in 1970, but, due to a dispute with Editor Jack Schiff the writer/artist resigned at the height of his powers. The King’s exuberant magic was impossible to match, but as with all The King’s creations, every element was in place for the successors to run with.

Challengers of the Unknown #9 (September 1959) saw an increase in the monster-heavy fantasy elements favoured by Schiff, and perhaps an easing of the subtle tension and inter-group fractious bickering that marked previous issues (Comics Historians take note: the Challs were snapping and snarling at each other years before Marvel’s Cosmic Quartet ever boarded that fateful rocket-ship).

This second cheap-&-cheerful volume collects the contents of Challengers of the Unknown #18 – #37 – spanning February/March 1961 through May 1964 – and opens with ‘The Menace of Mystery Island’ which finds the team fighting crooks on a tropical island that contains a crashed alien probe. This accident has deposited a test animal with uncanny powers…

In the manner of the times, the tenacious troubleshooters adopt the fuzzy li’l space-tyke and name him Cosmo.

The second story of the issue offers darker fare, however, as the team are then shanghaied through time to save ‘The Doomed World of Tomorrow’.

In the ‘The Alien Who Stole a Planet’, the heroes aid refugees from a doomed world, but things turn sour after one of the survivors decides Earth would be suitable replacement home, whilst in ‘The Beasts from the Fabulous Gem’, a soldier-of-fortune uses a stolen mystic jewel liberate monsters imprisoned within it in ancient times. Their very own super-villain then resurfaces as ‘Multi-Man Strikes Again’ in issue #20, and June shows up for a spot of beastie-bashing in the hectic riddle of ‘The Cosmic-Powered Creature!’ In the next issue it’s apparently just the lads who are shanghaied to ‘The Weird World that Didn’t Exist’ but she plays a major role in the follow-up tale when Cosmo returns in ‘The Challengers’ Space-Pet Ally’.

‘The Curse of the Golden God’ proffers the usual action-packed crime-drama in the South American jungles, whereas #22’s second tale hits much closer to home as the squad’s secret base is compromised by ‘The Thing in Challenger Mountain’ and the team find that ‘Death Guarded the Doom Box’ in the form of ancient but still deadly mechanical devices, after which more aliens kidnap humans to ‘The Island in the Sky’.

In ‘The Challengers Die at Dawn’, the hunt for a swindler leads the team to a lost tribe of oriental pirates in the South China Seas, but the big story in #24 is ‘Multi-Man, Master of Earth’: a grand, old-fashioned battle for justice against a seemingly unstoppable foe. Although the stories were becoming a touch formulaic by this stage, the equation was a trusted one, and Brown’s art was constantly improving.

Challengers of the Unknown #25 (April/May 1962) was right on the cusp of the moment full-blown superhero mania hit the world and, although ‘Return of the Invincible Pharaoh’ is a story of ancient mystery and slumbering menaces, its plot of a lost secret bestowing superpowers was to become a recurring staple for “normal, human heroes” such as the Challs, Blackhawk – and even in the Batman titles.

The second tale, ‘Captives of the Alien Hunter’ features another thieving extra-terrestrial up to no good and once more both June and Cosmo are required to foil the fiend.

‘Death Crowns the Challenger King’ is a bizarre variation on the Prisoner of Zenda’s plot: set in a hidden Mongol city with Prof. replacing the true ruler in a series of ceremonial ordeals, whilst the rest of the gang run interference against the scurvy villains, after which a flamboyant impresario is shown to have an out-of-this-world new act in ‘The Secret of the Space Spectaculars’.

Issue #27 led with ‘The 1,001 Impossible Inventions’, wherein two convicts bamboozle a wounded alien into using his advanced science for crime, whilst ‘Master of the Volcano Men’ (the first story for which we have a confirmed writer – Arnold Drake) introduces another perennial villain: rapacious marauding lava beings from the centre of the earth.

It was once more rebellious robots causing a destructive fuss in ‘The Revolt of the Terrible FX-1’, but the real show-stealer of #28 is a classic time-travel romp sending the team back to ancient Egypt to solve ‘The Riddle of the Faceless Man.’

The next issue brought ‘Four Roads to Doomsday (again by Drake) wherein satellite sabotage draws the team into a plot by alien criminals to conquer Earth, whilst the raucous, antagonistic nature of the team is highlighted in Ed “France” Herron’s ‘The War Between the Challenger Teams’, as Ace and Red battle Prof. and Rocky to end a war between two sub-sea races.

‘Multi-Man… Villain Turned Hero’ turned out to be just another evil ploy by the shape-changing charlatan, but #30’s real treat is the introduction of Gaylord Clayburn (Don’t. Just don’t. Grow up): a spoiled multimillionaire playboy who wants to become ‘The Fifth Challenger’ and is prepared to go to any lengths to achieve his ambition…

‘The Man Who Saved the Challengers’ Lives’ in #31 is the first full-length story since 1960; impressively retelling their dramatic origin, and revealing the debt they possibly owe to a shady industrialist, whilst #32 declares business as usual in Drake’s ‘One Challenger Must Die!’

Here the boys fiercely compete to learn who would sacrifice themselves to stop another rampaging Volcano Man, before rediscovering the power of teamwork, which was just as well since the second tale reveals how and why ‘Cosmo Turns Traitor.’

Each an expert in some field of human endeavour, in #33, the Challs are confronted by a superior individual in Drake’s ‘The Challengers Meet their Master’, but as with ‘The Threat of the Trojan Robot’, teamwork proves the solution to any problem. Ed Herron scripted terse thriller ‘Beachhead, USA’ which opens #34, as a U-Boat full of Nazis frozen since World War II tries to complete their last mission – blowing up the East Coast of America, with only the Chall’s in place to stop them.

Multi-Man then discovers that no matter how smart you are, building the perfect mate is a very bad (and tasteless) idea in ‘Multi-Woman, Queen of Disaster.’

‘The War Against the Moon Beast’ is a spectacular sci-fi yarn, balanced by the quirky prognostications of a carnival seer whose crystal ball predicts an adventure of the ‘Sons of the Challengers’.

One of the death-cheaters became a monster in #36’s ‘The Giant in Challenger Mountain’, but is recovered in time to join the others as ‘Bodyguards to a Star’ on the location of a dinosaur-infested movie-epic.

This splendidly daft second volume ends with #37 and ‘The Triple Terror of Mr. Dimension’ – a cheap thug who lucks into a reality-altering weapon, with Herron scripting the taut drama of ‘The Last Days of the Challengers’ wherein the team struggle to destroy giant robots and thwart an execution-list with their names on it…

Challengers of the Unknown is sheer escapist wonderment, and no fan of the medium should be deprived of the graphic exploits starring these ideal adventurer-heroes in the evocative setting of the recent now; a simpler, better world than ours. Reader-friendly to anyone with a love of wild thrills (or Saturday morning cartoons), these long-neglected tales would make the perfect animated kids show too…
© 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Sword of the Atom

By Jan Strnad & Gil Kane, with Pat Broderick & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1553-8 (TPB)

Wonderfully reminiscent of his superlative Blackmark paperback venture (collected in Blackmark: the 30th Anniversary Edition), supreme artistic stylist Gil Kane was a man inspired in this retooling of Silver-Age B-List hero The Atom. In a radical re-think co-authored by Jan Strnad, here the urbane scientific adventurer is removed from his comfort zone of cosy costumed crime-busting to become the sword-wielding champion of a barbaric lost kingdom.

Starting off with a 4-issue miniseries from 1983 and followed by three giant-sized annual Specials, the swashbuckling saga revitalized a once great character who had fallen on very lean times and set him up for his eventual return to the big leagues (I apologise for the puns – lowest form of wit, I know, but extremely hard to resist!).

Following the break-up of his marriage to ambitious lawyer Jean Loring, size-changing physicist Ray Palmer departs on a research trip to Brazil to ponder on his unsatisfactory life. Unfortunately, he falls foul of drug-runners who down his plane… To the world at large he appears dead, but in reality, the disheartened adventurer has stumbled upon an alien civilisation, populated by golden humanoids no more than six inches tall.

Lost for uncounted decades in the verdant vastness of the Amazon on a planet of giants, these alien outcasts and fugitives have built a city around the ruins of their crashed ship: a vessel powered by White Dwarf matter. Regrettably, since another batch of the incredible star-stuff powers and constitutes the Atom’s size-shifting outfit, the mighty mite finds himself trapped at the same diminutive height and must rely on his physical prowess, raw courage and flashing blade to survive…

In the epic manner of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, Palmer rescues and woos exotic Princess Laethwen and saves the hidden city of Morlaidh from a usurping dictator in a classic romp of action-packed derring-do. It’s a fabulous dose of ultimate escapism, perfectly executed by Kane and scripter Jan Strnad, with the subsequent sequels continuing the stunning transformation.

Without giving too much away, the first of these sees a disgruntled and displaced Palmer returned to our world, longing for the simplicity of Morlaidh and the love of Laethwen; the second finds Jean doing her own size-shifting (probably when she learned the skills she used in equally-iconoclastic miniseries Identity Crisis, fans!) as the Tiny Titan is forced to choose between his old life and his current one. The saga concludes with Kane replaced by Pat Broderick & Dennis Janke for an overly wordy tale of despots, plague and monstrous afflictions devastating the hidden jungle kingdom which only the Atom can combat.

Despite it’s rather tame finale Sword of the Atom is a superbly dynamic, vital burst of graphic excitement that clearly shows what can be done with seemingly tired and moribund characters when creators are bold enough and given sufficient editorial support. It’s also a hugely enjoyable read that will make your heart race and your pulse pound – just like comics are supposed to.
© 1983, 1984, 1985, 1988, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Challengers of the Unknown volume 1

By Jack Kirby, Bob Brown, Dave Wood, Ed Herron, Roz Kirby, Marvin Stein, Bruno Premiani, George Klein, Wally Wood & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1087-8 (TPB)

In an era where comicbooks had slipped into an undirected and formless mass of genre-niches, the Challengers of the Unknown were a bridging concept between the fashionably all-American human trouble-shooters who monopolised comicbooks for most of the 1950s and the costumed mystery men who would soon return to take over the industry.

As superheroes were being gradually revived in 1956 under the cautious aegis of Julius Schwartz, here was a super-team – the first of the Silver Age – with no powers, the most basic and utilitarian of costumes and the most dubious of motives: Suicide by Mystery.

Despite all that they were a huge hit and struck a chord that lasted for more than a decade before they finally died… only to rise again and yet again. The idea of them was stirring enough, but their initial execution made their success all but inevitable.

Jack Kirby was – and remains – the most important single influence in the history of American comics. There are, quite rightly, millions of words written about what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium. I’m going to add even more words to that superabundance in this review of one of his best projects, which like so many others, he perfectly constructed before moving on as he always did, leaving highly competent but never quite as inspired talents to build upon his legacy.

When the comic industry suffered an economic collapse in the mid 1950’s, Kirby’s partnership with Joe Simon ended and he returned briefly to DC Comics. Here he worked on mystery tales and the minority-interest Green Arrow back-up strip whilst creating newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force.

Never idle for a moment, he also re-packaged for Showcase (a try-out title that launched the careers of many DC mainstays) an original super-team concept that had been kicking around in his head since he and collaborator Simon had closed their innovative but unfortunate Mainline Comics.

After years of working for others, Simon and Kirby had finally established their own publishing company, producing comics for a much more sophisticated audience, only to find themselves in a sales downturn and awash in public hysteria generated by the anti-comic book witch-hunt of US Senator Estes Kefauver and psychologist Dr Fredric Wertham.

Simon moved into advertising, but Kirby soldiered on, taking his skills and ideas to a number of safer, if less experimental, companies.

The Challengers of the Unknown were four ordinary mortals; heroic adventurers and explorers who walked away unscathed from a terrible plane crash. Clearly what we now call “adrenaline junkies”, they decided that since they were all living on borrowed time, they would dedicate what remained of their lives to testing themselves and fate. They would risk their lives for Knowledge and, naturally, Justice.

The Kirby tales of the team have been thankfully immortalised in full-colour archival print and digital editions, but the team captivated readers for a decade beyond those glorious beginnings, and thus far those tales are only available in these monochrome tomes. Hope springs eternal, though…

The series launched with ‘The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box!’ (Showcase #6, cover-dated January/February 1957 – which meant it came out in time for Christmas 1956). Kirby and scripter Dave Wood, plus inkers Marvin Stein and Jack’s wife Roz, crafted a spectacular epic as the doom-chasers are hired by duplicitous magician Morelian to open an ancient container holding otherworldly secrets and powers.

This initial story roars along with all the tension and wonder of the B-movie thrillers it emulates and Kirby’s awesome drawing resonates with power and dynamism. That continues for the sequel, a science fiction drama sparked by an alliance of Nazi technologies and American criminality which unleashes a terrible robotic monster. ‘Ultivac is Loose!’ (Showcase #7, dated March/April 1957) introduces beautiful and capable boffin (aren’t they always?) Dr. June Robbins, who becomes the unofficial fifth Challenger at a time when most comic females (and living ones too) – had been banished back to subsidiary domestic status in that so-conservative era.

The team didn’t reappear until Showcase #11 (November/December 1957) as The Flash and Lois Lane got their shots at the big time. When the Challs did return, it was in alien invasion adventure ‘The Day the Earth Blew Up’, with unique realist Bruno Premiani inking a taut doomsday chiller pinning readers to the edges of their seats even today, and by the time of their last Showcase outing (#12, January /February 1958) they had won their own title.

‘The Menace of the Ancient Vials’ was defused by the usual blend of daredevil heroics and ingenuity (with the wonderful inking of George Klein adding subtle clarity to the tale of an international criminal who steals an ancient weapons cache that threatens the entire world if misused), but the biggest buzz came two months later with the debut of their own magazine.

Issue #1, written and drawn by Kirby, with Stein on inks, presented two complete stories plus an iconic introductory page that would become almost a signature second logo for the team.

‘The Man Who Tampered with Infinity’ pits the heroes against a renegade scientist whose cavalier dabbling liberates dreadful monsters from the beyond onto our defenceless planet, after which the team are abducted by aliens to become ‘The Human Pets’.

The same creators were responsible for a brace of thrillers in #2. ‘The Traitorous Challenger’ is a monster mystery, with June returning to sabotage a mission in the Australian Outback, whilst ‘The Monster Maker’ finds the team seemingly helpless against a super-criminal who can conjure up and animate solid objects out of his thoughts.

The third issue features ‘Secret of the Sorcerer’s Mirror’ with Roz Kirby & Marvin Stein again inking the mesmerising pencils, as the boys pursue a band of criminals whose magic looking glass can locate deadly ancient weapons, although the most intriguing tale for fans and historians is undoubtedly ‘The Menace of the Invincible Challenger’.

Here team strongman Rocky Davis is rocketed into space, only to crash back to Earth with strange, uncanny powers.

For years the obvious similarities of this group – and especially this adventure – to the origin of Marvel’s Fantastic Four (FF #1 came out in the autumn of 1961) have fuelled speculation. In all honesty, I simply don’t care. They’re both similar and different but equally enjoyable, so read both. In fact, read them all.

With #4 the series became artistically perfect as the sheer luminous brilliance of Wally Wood’s inking elevated the art to unparalleled heights. The scintillant sheen and limpid depth of Wood’s brushwork fostered an abiding authenticity in even the most outrageous of Kirby’s designs and the result is – even now – breathtaking.

‘The Wizard of Time’ is a full-length masterpiece wherein a series of bizarre robberies leads the team to a scientist with a time-machine. By visiting oracles of the past, he finds a path to the far future. When he gets there, he plans on robbing it blind, but the Challengers find a way to follow him…

‘The Riddle of the Star-Stone’ (#5) is a contemporary full-length thriller, wherein an archaeologist’s assistant uncovers an alien tablet bestowing various super-powers when different gems are inserted into it. The exotic locales and non-stop spectacular action are intoxicating, but the solid characterisation and ingenious writing are what make this such a compelling read.

Scripter Dave Wood returned for #6’s first story. ‘Captives of the Space Circus’ has the boys kidnapped from Earth to perform in a interplanetary show, but the evil ringmaster is promptly outfoxed and the team returns for Ed Herron’s mystic saga ‘The Sorceress of Forbidden Valley’, as June becomes an amnesiac puppet in a power struggle between a fugitive gangster and a ruthless feudal potentate.

There are also two stories in #7. Herron scripted both the relatively straightforward alien-safari tale ‘The Beasts from Planet 9’ and much more intriguing ‘Isle of No Return’ with the team confronting a scientific bandit before his shrinking ray leaves them permanently mouse-sized.

Issue #8 is a magnificent finale to a superb run, as Kirby & Wally Wood go out in style via two gripping spectaculars (both of which introduce menaces who would return to bedevil the team in future tales).

‘The Man Who Stole the Future’ by Dave Wood, Kirby and the (unrelated) Wally, introduces Drabny – a mastermind who steals mystic artefacts and conquers a small nation before the lads hand him his marching orders. This is a tale of blistering battles and uncharacteristic, if welcome, comedy, but the true gem is science fiction tour-de-force ‘Prisoners of the Robot Planet’, with art by Kirby & Wally, and most probably written by Kirby & Herron. Petitioned by a desperate alien, the Challs travel to his distant world to liberate the population from bondage to their own robotic servants, who have risen in revolt under the command of fearsome automaton Kra.

These are classic adventures, told in a classical manner. Kirby developed a brilliantly feasible concept with which to work and heroically archetypical characters in cool pilot Ace Morgan, indomitable strongman Rocky, intellectual aquanaut “Prof”. Haley and daredevil acrobat Red Ryan. He then manipulated, mixed and matched an astounding blend of genres to display their talents and courage in unforgettable exploits that informed every team comic that followed, and certainly influenced his successive and landmark triumphs with Stan Lee. But then he left.

The Challengers would follow the Kirby model until cancellation in 1970, but, due to a dispute with Editor Jack Schiff the writer/artist resigned at the height of his powers. The Kirby magic was impossible to match, but as with all The King’s creations, every element was in place for the successors to run with.

Challengers of the Unknown #9 (September 1959) saw an increase in the fantasy elements favoured by Schiff, and perhaps an easing of the subtle tension and inter-group fractious bickering that marked previous issues (Comics Historians take note: the Challs were snapping and snarling at each other years before Marvel’s Cosmic Quartet ever boarded that fateful rocket-ship).

A number of writers, many sadly lost to posterity, stepped in, including Bill Finger, Ed Herron and possibly Jack Miller, Bob Haney and Arnold Drake, but one man took over the illustrator’s role: Bob Brown.

Brown was born August 22nd 1915 and he died in 1977 following a long illness. He studied at Hartford Art School and Rhode Island School of Design, and worked with his showbiz folks and sister in a song-&-dance act from 1927 onwards. He was drafted in 1940 – the year he also began working as a comics artist and scripter for Fox, Timely/Atlas. As the war intensified, he was an aircraft radio operator, an aviation cadet and served in the Pacific as bombardier and navigator in B-29 bombers, earning six air medals and a Distinguished Flying Cross.

After jobbing around the industry during the late 1040s and 1950’s Brown settled at National Comics/DC, co-created the long-running Space Ranger, drawing Tomahawk, western hero Vigilante, Batman, Superboy, Doom Patrol, World’s Finest Comics and a host of other features and genre shorts. He moved to Marvel in the 1970s where he drew Warlock, Daredevil and the Avengers among others.

He was a consummate professional and drew every issue of the Challengers from #9-63: almost a decade of high adventure ranged from ravaging aliens, cute-and-fuzzy space beasts to truly scary supernatural horrors.

‘The Men who Lost their Memories’ finds the team fighting crooks with a thought-stealing machine, whereas ‘The Plot to Destroy Earth!’ is a full-on, end-of-humanity thriller with monsters bent on carving our world into chunks for their resource-hungry alien masters. Only the guts and ingenuity of our heroes can save the day…

A destructive giant with a deadly secret is the motivating premise of ‘The Cave-Man Beast’ and #10’s cover-featured second tale sets another time-travel conundrum as the boys discover their own likenesses on a submerged monolith in fanciful thriller ‘The Four Faces of Doom’.

Issue #11 is an action-packed full-length interdimensional romp subdivided into ‘The Creatures from the Forbidden World’, ‘Land beyond the Light’ and ‘The Achilles Heel’, after which the two-story format returns for the next issue, which boasts ‘The Challenger from Outer Space’ – with an alien superhero joining the team – and ‘Three Clues to Sorcery’ with our quarrelsome quartet again forced to endure exotic locales and extreme perils to acquire mystic artefacts for a criminal mastermind. Even so, this time there’s a unique and deadly twist in this oft-told tale…

‘The Prisoner of the Tiny Space Ball’ see the team rescuing the ruler of another world, before Rocky is possessed by the legendary Golden Fleece, making him a puppet of ‘The Creatures from the Past’.

Issue #14 opens with one of the few adventures with a credited scripter. Ed “France” Herron was a 30-year comics veteran and ‘The Man who Conquered the Challengers’ is one of his best tales, with crooked archaeologist Eric Pramble stealing an ancient formula for “liquid light” which makes him functionally immortal. Moreover, every time he’s killed, he reanimates with a different super-power!

As Multi-Man, Pramble became the closest thing to an arch-villain the series ever had, and even graduated to becoming a regular foe across the DCU. Once again, cool wits and sheer nerve find a way to victory that sheer firepower never could.

In second yarn ‘Captives of the Alien Beasts’, all five Challs are teleported to another world by animals who have invaded a scientist’s laboratory. It’s a relatively innocuous tale when compared to #15’s all-out fight-fest ‘The Return of Multi-Man’ and bizarre offering ‘The Lady Giant and the Beast’, wherein June is transformed into a 50-foot leviathan just as a scaly monster cuts a swathe of destruction through the locality.

Issue #16’s ‘Incredible Metal Creature’ sees an Earth thug join forces with an escaped alien criminal. No real Challenge there, but a back-up yarn finds the team in Arabia as ‘Prisoners of the Mirage World’ facing knights who have been trapped there since the time of the Crusades.

This thrill-stuffed then tome concludes with #17’s supernatural crime whimsy ‘The Genie who Feared June’, and interplanetary mission of mercy ‘The Secret of the Space Capsules’; both solid pieces of adventure fiction that, if not displaying the unique Kirby magic, are redolent with its flavours.

As well as being probably (certainly at this moment, anyway) my favourite comics series, Challengers of the Unknown is sheer escapist wonderment, and no fan of the medium should miss the graphic exploits of these perfect adventurers in the ideal setting of not so long ago in a simpler better world than ours. If only we could convince DC Comics to give them the archival home in print and digital editions they so richly deserve, to match the constant re-imaginings the team and title regularly enjoy…
© 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Metal Men volume 1

By Robert Kanigher, Bob Haney, Ross Andru, Mike Esposito, Ramona Fradon & various (DC Comics)
SBN: 978-1-4012-1559-0 (TPB)

Dc comics have a vast unexploited wealth and variety of comics classics that remain untapped for modern fans. This especially kid-friendly series is one that really should be back in digital and paperback archival tomes…

In contrast to his gritty war and adventure scripts Robert Kanigher usually kept his fantasy and superhero comicbook tales light, visually intriguing and often extremely outlandish… and that’s certainly the case with these eccentric artificial heroes who briefly caught the early 1960’s zeitgeist for bizarre and outrageous light-hearted adventure.

The Metal Men first appeared in four consecutive issues of National/DC’s try-out title Showcase: legendarily created over a weekend by Kanigher after an intended feature blew its press deadline. The prospect was rapidly rendered by the art-team of Ross Andru & Mike Esposito: a last-minute filler that attracted a large readership’s eager attention. Within months of their fourth and final adventure, the gleaming gladiatorial gadgets were stars of their own title.

This first cheap and cheerful monochrome compendium collects the electrifying contents of Showcase #37-40, Metal Men #1-15 (spanning (March/April 1962 to September 1965) as well as the first of their nine team-up appearances in Brave and the Bold: specifically issue #55.

The alchemical excitement began in Showcase #37 (March/April 1962) with ‘The Flaming Doom!’ wherein an horrific radioactive antediluvian beast flies out of a melting polar glacier (geez! Topical) to mindlessly devastate humanity’s great cities. Helpless to stop the creature, the American military desperately approaches brilliant young technologist Dr. Will Magnus for a solution. He rapidly constructs a doomsday squad of self-regulating, highly intelligent automatons, patterned after Tina, a prototype “female” robot constructed from platinum and malleable memory ceramic, governed by a tiny supercomputer dubbed a “Responsometer”.

This miracle of micro-engineering not only simulates – or perhaps originates – thought processes and emotional character for the robots, but constantly reprograms the base form – allowing the mechanoids to change their shapes.

Magnus patterns his handmade heroes on pure metals, with Gold as leader of a tight-knit team consisting of Iron, Lead, Mercury and Tin warriors. Thanks to their responsometers, each robot specialises in physical changes based on its elemental properties but – due to some quirk of programming – the robots also develop personality traits mimicking the metaphorical attributes of their base metal.

Tina is especially intransigent, believing herself to be passionately in love with her dashing creator…

As soon as they’ve introduced themselves, the shining squad sets off to confront the deadly monster in a flying rocket-saucer and, after a terrible battle, succeed at the cost of their own brief lives…

In Showcase #38 a very public campaign to reconstruct the Metal Men results in Magnus building them anew. However, their unique characters are gone and they promptly fail in battle against a Soviet-backed Nazi scientist’s robotic marauder… until the desperate Yankee inventor manages to recover their original responsometers in ‘The Nightmare Menace!’

‘The Deathless Doom!’ then pits the malleable machines against an animated glassine tank used to store toxic residues from failed experiments by genius chemist Professor Norton. The intermingled waste products combine to create a deadly new life form dubbed Chemo who (Which? What?) would become one of the greatest menaces in the DC universe…

The Showcase trial run concluded with September/October 1962 issue as ‘The Day the Metal Men Melted!’ sees Chemo return just as Magnus’ previous exposure to the Toxic Terror coincidentally transforms the inventor into a radioactive, metallic giant. Acutely aware of his dangerous condition, Magnus exiles himself to deep space and manages to take Chemo with him where, luckily, the outer limits provide the valiant scientist with an unexpected cure…

Whereas the first three tales were relatively straight dramas, with this yarn rationalistic physics began giving way to fantastic fringe science and comedic elements began to proliferate. By increasingly capitalising on the Metal’s Men quirky characters, successive stories became as much fantasy as drama.

Metal Men #1 launched with an April/May 1963 cover-date, detailing the astonishing ‘Rain of the Missile Men’, in which alien robot Z-1 falls in love with Tina from astronomically afar and builds innumerable hordes of duplicates of himself to claim her. When his automaton army invades Earth, only Tina survives to the end of the issue…

At this point Magnus is becoming increasingly schizophrenic about the desperately lovesick and fiercely jealous Tina: alternately berating her impossible emotions then moping and missing her after he’s donated the troublesome toy to a museum… Huh! Robot Women: can’t live with them, can’t make them whatever you want them to…

Kanigher’s greatest ability was always his knack for dreaming up outlandish visual situations and bizarre emotive twists. ‘Robots of Terror’ describes how the frustrated Tina constructs her own mechanical Doc Magnus, which turns evil and develops an equally iniquitous team of elemental warriors – Barium, Aluminium, Calcium, Zirconium, Sodium and Plutonium – to battle the recently reconstructed Metal Men, after which #3’s ‘The Moon’s Mechanical Army!’ sees the team undertake a lunar search for the Platinum Bombshell after she sacrifices herself to save them all. In the process, they inadvertently bring an uncontrollable amoebic monster back to Earth…

Tin was the meekest Metal and most lacking in confidence, but in ‘The Bracelet of Doomed Heroes!’ a Giant-Alien-Robot-Amazon-Queen takes a shine to the timid tyke and shanghaies him to her distant planet. When his alchemical comrades come to the rescue they are trapped and enslaved until Tin turns the tide in the concluding ‘Menace of the Mammoth Robots!’

Back on Earth, the Metal Men battle a Gas Gang (Oxygen, Helium, Chloroform, Carbon Monoxide and Carbon Dioxide) of evil mechanical marauders after cosmic rays made Magnus evil and electronic on ‘The Day Doc Turned Robot!’, after which ‘The Living Gun!’ finds a fully-restored team confronting a colossal monster formed from a runaway solar prominence.

Metal Men #8 has the team take a little blind boy on a jaunt to another world, only to be trapped by extraterrestrial robots in ‘The Playground of Terror!’ before young Billy saves the day in the concluding battle with ‘The Robot Juggernaut!’

‘Revolt of the Gas Gang!’ relates how Doc is forced to revive the vaporous villains when the Metal Men are accidentally merged into one monolithic menace, after which the tightly continuous sagas briefly halt here to include a team-up tale from Brave and the Bold #55 (August/September 1965) in which writer Bob Haney and illustrators Ramona Fradon & Charles Paris detail the ‘Revenge of the Robot Reject’.

When a series of suspicious lab accidents destroys the Heavy Metal Heroes, distraught Doc is menaced by rogue robot Uranium and its silver metal lover Agantha, until size-changing champion Professor Ray Palmer intervenes as the all-conquering Atom, after which the scrap-heap scrappers are once more resurrected to end the evil automaton’s nuclear threat forever.

Meanwhile, back in Metal Men #11, by usual suspects Kanigher, Andru & Esposito, ‘The Floating Furies!’ finds the resourceful robots both upon and beneath the briny seas, battling intelligent mines, giant crustaceans and even King Neptune, before Z-1’s inexhaustible horde of Missile Men returns to ‘Shake the Stars!’, after which the ‘Raid of the Skyscraper Robot’ introduces a new Metal Man… of sorts.

When lonely Tin builds himself a girlfriend from a toy kit, neither is able to withstand the mockery of fellow metal Mercury. The automatic lovers flee Earth, only to encounter a devastated mobile planet of monolithic mechanical monsters which follow them back here – only to face final defeat at the gleaming hands of the reunited team.

Chemo returns to disable – but never defeat – the Metal Men in #14’s ‘The Headless Robots!’ before this initial instalment of elemental epics concludes with ‘The Revenge of the Rebel Robots!’ in which the fashionable fad for acronymic spy stories pitches the Sterling Stalwarts into combat with a giant spy machine from the subversive secret society B.O.L.T.S.! (…and no, I don’t know what it stands for…)

Wildly imaginative, weirdly enthralling and brilliantly daft, these full-on, frantic fantasies are a superb slice of the nostalgic good old days, when every day lasted a week and the world was stuffed to bursting with dinosaurs, robots and monsters. Sometimes, if you buy the right book, you can still get all those thrills at once, so let’s hope it’s not long before these marvellous yarns are back in vogue… and print…

© 1962-1965, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman the Man of Steel Volume 3

By John Byrne, Marv Wolfman, Jerry Ordway & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0246-0 (TPB)

In 1985, when DC Comics decided to rationalise and reconstruct their continuity with Crisis on Infinite Earths, they used the event to regenerate their key properties at the same time. The biggest gun they had was Superman and it’s hard to argue that change came none too soon.

The big guy was in a bit of a slump, but he’d weathered those before. So how could a major makeover be anything but a pathetic marketing ploy that would alienate the real fans for a few Johnny-come-latelies who would jump ship as soon as the next fad surfaced? The popular wisdom amongst fans was that this new Superman was going to suck.

They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Superman titles were cancelled or suspended for three months, and yes, that did make the real-world media sit-up and take notice of the character for the first time in decades. But there was method in the corporate madness.

Beginning with 6-part miniseries Man of Steel – written and drawn by mainstream superstar John Byrne and inked by venerated veteran Dick Giordano – the experiment was a huge and instant success. So much so, that when it was first collected as a stand-alone graphic novel in the 1980s, it became one of the industry’s premiere break-out hits. From his overwhelming re-inception the character returned to his suspended comicbook homes with the addition of a third monthly title premiering that same month.

Superman, Adventures of Superman, and Action Comics (which became a fan-pleasing team-up book guest-starring other heroes of the DC Universe) were instant best-sellers. So successful was the relaunch that by the early 1990’s Superman would be able to sustain four monthly titles as well as Specials, Annuals, guest shots and his semi-regular appearances in titles such as Justice League.

It was quite a turnaround from the earlier heydays of the Man of Steel when editors were frantic about not over-exposing their biggest gun.

With Byrne’s controversial reboot now a solid hit, the collaborative teams tasked with ensuring his continued success really hit their stride with the tales collected in this third volume.

From April to June 1987 and re-presenting Superman #4-6, Action #587-589 and Adventures of Superman #427-429 in paperback and digital formats, the wonderment is preceded by an Introduction from writer/artist Jerry Ordway before the drama kicks off with an all-out battle against deranged gunman ‘Bloodsport!’ courtesy of Byrne and inker Karl Kesel. The merciless shooter is more than just crazy, however: some hidden genius has given him the ability to manifest wonder weapons from nothing and he never runs out of ammo… Marv Wolfman & Jerry Ordway concentrated on longer, more suspenseful tales. Adventures of Superman #427-428) take the Man of Tomorrow on a punishing visit to the rogue state of Qurac and an encounter with a hidden race of alien telepaths called the Circle, in a visceral and beautiful tale of un-realpolitik. ‘Mind Games’ and ‘Personal Best’ combine a much more relevant, realistic slant with lots of character sub-plots featuring assorted staff and family staff of the Daily Planet after which Byrne in Action Comics manufactures spectacle, thrills and instant gratification reader appeal.

‘Cityscape!’, in #587, teams the Metropolis Marvel with Jack Kirby’s Etrigan the Demon as sorceress Morgaine Le Fay attempts to gain immortality by warping time itself…

‘The Mummy Strikes’ and ‘The Last Five Hundred’ (Byrne & Kesel, Superman #5-6) then introduce the first hint of potential romance between the Man of Steel and Wonder Woman, before Lois Lane and Clark Kent are embroiled in an extraterrestrial invasion drama that started half a million years ago and feature rogue robots and antediluvian bodysnatchers.

In ‘Old Ties’ (Superman #6) Wolfman & Ordway reveal the catastrophic results of the Circle transferring their expansionist attentions to Metropolis, before this collection concludes with a cosmic saga from Action Comics #588-589 wherein Byrne & Giordano team the Caped Kryptonian with Hawkman and Hawkwoman in ‘All Wars Must End’, an epic battle against malign Thanagarian invaders, permitting Arisia , Salaak, Kilowog, Katma Tui and other luminaries of the Green Lantern Corps to meet and rescue the star-lost Superman in ‘Green on Green’ before uniting to eliminate an unstoppable planet-eating beast.

The back-to-basics approach lured many readers to – and back to – the Superman franchise, but the sheer quality of the stories and art are what convinced them to stay. Such cracking, clear-cut superhero exploits are a high point in the Action Ace’s decades-long career, and these chronological-release collections are certainly the easiest way to enjoy one of the most impressive reinventions of the ultimate comic-book icon.
© 1987, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.